August and everything after
Writing is how I deal with my American-made anxiety.
I wrote this story for you because it’s August and Cindy and I are teachers and our children are elementary school students and in a few weeks we’re all expected to go back to school and teach and learn while COVID-19 rages.
Being a teacher with two autoimmune disorders, who, right now, is expected to return to the classroom my nerves jangle like car keys. It’s extremely difficult to focus on “back to school” banalities when distracted by the prospect of dying. So writing is my way to forget what’s really happening. Nouns and verbs are how I soothe my soul. And considering the various chemicals, when injected, that offer earthly detachment–writing seems like a healthy habit.
When I sat down this week to write, the phrase “August and everything after” sat down with me.
At first, I didn’t know why. But it would’t go away. So I teased it out until I found myself 18 years old again, in a windowless warehouse, listening to music on my Discman, eating leftover dinner, and dreaming of being a writer.
Even though 2020 has already been marred with so any “memorable” things, the teacher and parent parts of me are unnerved by August and everything that may come after.
So to calm my nerves I spent the week writing this story. It’s not about COVID or going back to school or the anxiety I currently feel. It’s about memory and being 18 again. It’s about dreaming and music and writing and the tension of things unsaid.
I know this is a departure from my usual post. But if it wasn’t for COVID, I would have been on an Mexican beach this week– so I needed departure. A vacation.
I needed to get lost for awhile.
And maybe you do to.
PS: 11 of 13 words in the last line of this story were stolen from the last line of The Great Gatsby. I’m not trying to show off. I’m just trying to squeeze more pulp out of my overpriced English degree.
After I burped out high school, I spent the summer of 1998 working in a windowless warehouse stocked with small General Motors car parts.
Door handles, knobs, gaskets, rubber belts, light bulbs, and silver ashtrays that opened and closed like a silver mouth (remember those???).
Who knew a warehouse the size of four football fields could be filled, from floor to ceiling, with so many little parts?
My job was simple: at the start of the shift I was gifted a wrist-to-elbow stack of part requests called “tickets”. I would spend the next 7 hours fetching tickets down organized aisles throughout the warehouse.
I was a summer temp. I filled-in for workers on vacation. The real workers didn’t say much to me except “Get out of the way” or “Hurry up” or “Stay in school, kid”.
With no windows or smiles or girls my age–it was a lonely job.
The place was as caring as the concrete floor that even at the spry age of 18, made my feet and ankles and knees feel like they were owned by an aging old bull rider.
With high school in the rear view mirror, I was just weeks from starting my pursuit of an English degree.
Why? I don’t know.
Why do we do anything we do when we’re 18?
I mean, I thought it would be cool to be a writer. And since I didn’t know any other languages*, a writer who writes in English made sense.
*I took Spanish for three years in high school. I learned more Spanish from binge watching Dora the Explorer with Haley, my then 3 year old daughter.
But what would I write?
Probably a bestselling novel that would probably be made into a movie netting me millions of dollars. Probably.
I worked 7 hours because the labor union and General Motors agreed the workers would get 3 breaks: 2 fifteen minute breaks and 1 thirty minute lunch, dinner, or breakfast break depending on the shift. I worked the second shift. 2 pm-10 pm. So I ate dinner by myself a lot that summer. And my dinner was usually what mom cooked for dinner the night before. An endless summer of leftovers.
However, Greg, a tall, red head who always wore collared golf-shirts would occasionally talk to me in the break room. The subject of our conversations was almost always music.
I would bring my Discman and a CD folder to work (remember those???) and I would often put on my headphones and eat with Van Morrison or David Gray or The Counting Crows.
That summer I was really into “poetic music.” Lyrically charged songs that sounded like poems set to music. I studied lyrics like I should have studied Spanish in high school. I felt comfortable and at ease with guys who artfully embraced and announced their vulnerability. Men who said what men don’t often say.
This heart-on-the-sleeve summer was when I became more interested in things unsaid versus things said.
That summer I began working on a novel called Some Things are Better left Unsaid. I saved it on a floppy disk (remember those???). It was about an 18 year old kid who runs away from his troubled home only to find out the world is more troubled than his home ever was. I wrote the first 37 pages. It’s boring and tedious and tries way too hard to be cool–like most 18 year olds. But it has potential–like most 18 year olds.
Anyway, one day Greg saw the Counting Crows CD sitting on the table next to Tupperware full of yesterday’s chicken and rice dinner.
Greg sat across from me and pointed to the CD, “Great, album.”
Greg was 40. I was 18. He said album. I said CD. Potato Potahto. We were talking in the same language: Music.
“Yeah. It is.”
“I really like the handwritten lyrics across the album.”
“What’s your favorite song on the album?”
“I mean the whole CD is great. There’s not a bad song on it. But if I have to go with “Round Here.””
Greg smiled and said the following lyric like he was reading instructions aloud to himself, “I stepped out the front door like a ghost into the fog where no one notices the contrast to white on white.”
“That’s a great lyric.”
“That’s how I feel most days.”
As summer ached on, Greg and I continued to talk about music. Our conversations bounced from Motown to Rock n’ Roll to Grunge music.
Then one day he asked if I was going to college. I’ll never forget it because he asked the question like this, “Are you going to college?”
“Smart. What major?”
Greg looked like he swallowed something sour. “I have a degree in English.”
He then looked about the windowless warehouse and back at me and made a rainbow arch with his hands, “…and as you can see I’m putting it to good use.”
There was tension in the windowless warehouse that summer. But it’s not like you could open a window and let a natural wind soothe the hot coals. There were whispers about layoffs and severance packages and relocation. The union and management were not on good terms. As if someone was sleeping on the couch. As if you’re a kid again, tucked in the backseat of a car, and your parents are in the front seat fighting and how someone turns off the radio and how the words are sharp and loud and how you stare at the silver ashtray that opens and closes like a mouth on the back of the driver’s seat and how when the fighting ends it’s hot and quiet and how someone in the front seat rolls down the window and the fight is sucked out into the world. Except this warehouse didn’t have windows. Tension lingered. You felt it in your tired legs. It made your ankles sweat. It made your clothes stink. And you wanted nothing more than to be somewhere else.
I asked Greg, “Why English?”
“I wanted to be a writer.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“It seemed unrealistic work. Now I make too much money here.” He made the rainbow arch motion with his arms again, “Hopefully, when I retire I will write.”
On my last day of work Greg used his CD burner (remember those???) and burned Van Morrison’s “Saint Dominic’s Preview”.
“This is one of my favorite albums. It might as well be side 2 of the “Moondance” album.” Morrison’s most commercially successful album.
“Sure. Good luck with that English degree.”
22 year have passed.
Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid patiently waits on a floppy disk in a shoe box in my bedroom closet, silver ashtrays are extinct, and I’m sitting at the futbol field watching my Haley’s practice. She’s 12 now and she doesn’t watch Dora the Explorer anymore. I put in my ear buds, click on my Discman/iPhone, open the Spotify app and play the “August and Everything After” CD/Album/Digital Music Transcription.
Under the August heat, I’m back in the windowless warehouse, where the unsaid tension was as real and hard as the concrete floors.
Though the job paid well, almost $20 an hour, and for an 18 year old kid in 1998 that was some serious money–I hated it.
2pm-10pm. Enter in the daylight and leave when it’s dark. And with no windows, you had no idea how dark the outside world was.
“Round Here” begins and lead singer Adam Duritz sings,”Stepped out the front door…”
Haley kicks the soccer ball and the soccer ball rises in the air and flies over the goal. She jogs, head down, to retrieve the ball.
“August and Everything After” was released 27 years ago. Music from your youth has a mysterious ability to escort you from the present into the sepia past. Music, poetry of literature—the transitive power of words, make old conversations rush to the lip of memory and like they were said this morning.
Across town, Cindy sits at the baseball field with our two sons. She texts me a picture of Chase smiling, wearing catcher’s gear. The picture is framed on my Discman/iPhone.
It’s funny how life works. When you’re 18 you wonder where life will take you and after a few unseen twists and turns you’re at your daughter’s soccer practice writing a story on your Discman/iPhone as songs from your past play in the present.
Greg is here now. We’re sitting in the General Motors break room looking at a CD/album with handwritten lyrics on it. An empty Tupperware square sits between us. Greg tells me he’s saving writing for when he retires. I nod and the warehouse tension plucks my nerves like guitar strings. I want to tell him not to wait. That he should write right now. But I don’t. Because I’m 18. Because I know very little about time and love and conception and chronic illnesses that attack your brain and shorten your life.
And so I rock on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.
You know what I need??? A new t-shirt. Click here and order a limited-edition, super-soft Write on Fight on supporter t-shirt!
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